In an apparent victory for industry, Kootenai County has escaped designation as a federal air quality “non-attainment area.”
Instead, state and federal regulators have signed an agreement with the Kootenai County Air Quality Advisory Committee.
It includes a public awareness campaign, voluntary burning restrictions and a two-year study of pollution sources. Businesses and local agencies have pledged $200,000 for the study.
Had the county been slapped with the designation, it could have put a crimp on industrial growth by toughening pollution standards.
Environmentalists Monday split over whether the agreement is a good idea. Some - including two on the committee - said it’s a quicker, cheaper way to cleaner air.
“The intent is to clean up the air of Kootenai County without having higher-ups force our hand,” said committee member Mike Rudbeck.
The federal listing, he said, would have scared off industry and expanded bureaucracies. It was triggered by five violations of smoke and dust particle standards in the last four years. The testing will be able to determine precisely where those pollutants come from.
“As an environmentalist, I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think it was a win-win situation,” said George Brabb, another committee member and president of the Kootenai Environmental Alliance. “We felt that what we’re planning to do would result in a better job in the end.”
Others, however, say the agreement does little or nothing to curtail industrial pollution.
“I don’t think it’s in the best interest of our public health,” said attorney Marc McGregor. The agreement only includes measures to control homeowner wood smoke, outdoor burning and road dust, he said.
“There are just none at all that apply to industry,” he said.
“We’re very upset. What we’ve done is say ‘go away and industry will take care of itself.’ It doesn’t work that way,” said Jane Morgan, spokeswoman for Residents Against Pit Encroachment, a Rathdrum Prairie group fighting gravel pit dust.
The air quality committee is chaired by Bruce Cyr, president of Interstate Concrete and Asphalt in Coeur d’Alene. Morgan feels Cyr and other industry representatives on the committee “deliberately conspired to derail the nonattainment status.”
“They like the status quo,” Morgan said. “The mining industry was very aware of what non-attainment would mean.”
Cyr did not return a call Monday. But Rudbeck said the committee is not steered by industry.
“This is not a case of sandbagging, with these people trying to buy time,” he said. “I’d be the first one to be pulling out big red flags.”
State and federal regulators, for their part, painted the agreement as a good deal for all involved.
The efforts to curtail wood smoke, yard waste burning and road dust will have immediate effects, they predicted.
The comprehensive study, they said, can then be used to regulate industrial polluters.
“We’ll still be evaluating all the data that’s being compiled and ensuring that it’s accurate and complete,” said Dan Redline, air quality analyst with the Idaho Division of Environmental Quality.
DEQ, he said, is already holding Kootenai County industry to standards “comparable to a nonattainment area” because of the high dust and smoke particle readings.
“I think we’ll see meaningful reductions in pollution,” said Doug Cole, chief of the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s air and toxics section in Boise.
Under a federal non-attainment listing, he said, it can be up to three years before action is taken to limit pollutants.
The Kootenai County agreement, by contrast, must produce a preliminary air quality plan by October.
“I don’t think the results will be the same - I think we’ll achieve emission reduction quicker,” he said.